Beethoven/Gubaidulina/Brahms/Strauss – Stephanie Heriger

Two days later, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around Sofia Gubaidulina’s Feast During a Plague. And, not surprisingly, it’s the pre-recorded material that’s got me a little stumped. Not because I found it intrusive (which it was), but instead because I found it disturbing – and that disturbs me.

Granted, this was the point. In
reading Mark Rohr’s program notes and even the composer’s own thoughts
on the work, it’s clear that these sounds were meant to be jarring and
uncomfortable. The question for me, though, is why. I’m no stranger to new music and, as I explained in my last post, I often get a kick out of watching audiences squirm a little. So why was I so put off by these pre-recorded “intrusions”? Here are a few thoughts:

 These sounds came relatively late in the piece, so their arrival, even though it was expected, was startling nonetheless and almost downright disorienting. In fact, I felt as if my mind had been taken "out of the music" as I tried to make sense of what I was hearing. Sure, this all happened in an instant, but this shift in thought seemed to alter my entire listening experience.

For many of the same reasons, the pre-recorded material also brought me (quickly and unapologetically) out of my own interpretation. Perhaps it was knowing that the work was inspired by Pushkin’s short play of the same name (which was itself inspired by poet John Wilson’s “The City of Plague”), but, for most of the work, my mind was firmly rooted in the 19th century, or, at the very least, a time and place other than our own.  Maybe this distance was somehow a defense mechanism on my part – the work is more than a little accusatory. Still, when the computer-generated rhythms made their first entrance, I was immediately brought back to the 21st century. And, again, the piece was no longer the same to me.

One final thought – I’m left to wonder if pre-recorded material isn’t somehow inherently disconcerting, regardless of what the pre-recorded material may be. Modern technology allows us a certain amount of authority, but, ultimately, these sounds are beyond our control (at least once we initiate playback). Maybe the tension between what is happening and what may potentially happen is something we’re all programmed to feel. I’m sure I felt it.

I’m still not prepared to say whether I liked or disliked the piece – I need to hear it again. Let me also say that I’m well aware that everything I just described is, most likely, what Gubaidulina intended. This post is in no way a critique – it is, instead, a chance for me to make sense of my own reaction (one that caught me a little off guard). As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts…  

1 thought on “Beethoven/Gubaidulina/Brahms/Strauss – Stephanie Heriger”

  • I would recommend listening to a live, unfamiliar composition, without reading the program notes, except the short description about the composer. Reading the notes AFTER the concert will assure that one’s own reactions (feelings, reflections, associations & thoughts are one’s own.) There are plenty of program notes (& newspaper reviews) which are “not to the point” to say the least. This was the case for Gubaidulina’s music.
    I went to this concert twice (Saturday & Sunday). In my opinion, this music is monumental! I felt it during the first listening & it was reinforced on second hearing.
    It is of course, helpful to pay attention to her age: she was born in 1931 in the Soviet Union. Adding to that, basic knowledge of history gives all the clues one needs to know in order “to get” the spectrum of her inspiration. In addition: using the word ‘Plague’ in a title (in any art form) in the period after the last ‘real plague’ occured, is a clue for a metaphor. More, a little later in my own blog

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